"To demo or not to demo.....when is a building worth keeping"



“To Demo or not to Demo”  When is a building worth keeping?


In 1961, scholar Jane Jacobs wrote a book called The Death and Life of Great American Cities   Chapter 10, “The Need for Aged Buildings,” was especially interesting.

“Cities need old buildings so badly,” Jacobs wrote, “it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them.”

The question whether or not to demolish an existing building often arise when development is proposed in or around a central downtown area of a city, where most older structures are located.  Typically older buildings of historic relevance are deemed “Historic Landmarks” by local governing bodies, which offer protection to these old structures and keep them from being demolished by potential developers.  However, the term “historic” is definitely subjective. Some believe a building is not “historic” unless someone famous was born there or an important event took place there.  Some jurisdictions feel any structure built before 1950 should be reviewed as being a historic structure.

So what about the buildings not deemed to be “Historic”, but are located in important districts or areas of importance for other reasons.

When the owners of the Dogwood Restaurant and bar approached me with a potential site for their development, one of the first questions raised was whether or not to keep the existing 1940’s brick warehouse structure which sat empty for years on the corner of Bagby Street and McIlhenny Street located in the Midtown District of Houston.

The Midtown District of Houston is a fascinating area which has transformed it’s identity numerous times over the past decades.  Before the 1950’s, the Midtown area was a popular Houston residential district. Increased commercial development led homeowners to leave for neighborhoods they considered less busy. The area became a group of small apartment complexes, low-rise commercial buildings, and older houses.

In the 1970s, Midtown became home to Little Saigon, a neighborhood of Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans, who pioneered the redevelopment of Midtown Houston, which flourished through the 1980’s and early 1990’s.

In 1995,The City of Houston established the Midtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ). The establishment of the TIRZ led to the opening of upper income townhomes and apartment complexes in western Midtown and the area along Elizabeth Baldwin Park.  This resulted in a population increase which also increased the density of the Midtown area. During the 1990s commercial uses increased which sparked the 76th Texas Legislature to create the Midtown Management District.

By 2004, higher rents and street construction have reduced the number of Vietnamese American businesses, many of which have relocated to the outer Houston Chinatown in the Bellaire Boulevard corridor west of Sharpstown. On May 1 of that year, during the 6th Annual Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Festival, the section of Midtown along Milam Street and Travis Street near Tuam Street received the official designation "Little Saigon."

In 2009 Houston City Council approved the expansion of the Midtown TIRZ by 8 acres . The new territory includes the Asia House, the Buffalo Soldiers Museum and the Museum of African-American culture.

By 2012 many new bars, retail operations, and restaurants had opened in Midtown and sparked an urban renewal effort by the City of Houston to improve many of the streetscapes along several of the major artery corridors that feed in and out of the downtown Houston area.

One major corridor currently being improved by the City of Houston is the Bagby Street corridor, which is where the  Dogwood Midtown project took place.

Many of the buildings in this area have been remodelled, while others have been  torn down and redeveloped to house luxury townhomes and new commercial developments.

 So when the question was raised whether or not to keep the existing building on the proposed Dogwood site, some important discussions took place between the business owner, property owner and architect.  The existing structure was a one story brick warehouse building which was  believed to be built in the 1940’s and stood the test of time while inhabiting numerous different Midtown and Pre-Midtown businesses throughout it’s history.  The history of this building has not been documented, but one could imagine it was used for small commerical businesses throughout the past 7+ decades.  Most recently, the building was sitting empty for many years.

Even though this building is not regarded as a historic landmark per se, this structure could be regarded as relevant in the history of Houston and the Midtown District, not to mention, to those people who built the building or inhabited it over the years and made it a part of their daily lives.

Depending on the condition of the building and the nature of the project, I like to analyze such design challenges with the idea of keeping a piece of built history intact whenever possible and appropriate.  Why not give an old structure, or portion of an old structure new life.  I figure this to be a gesture that gives respect to the original structure, while providing an opportunity to literally stitch together the old and the new architecture to hopefully create a richer urban fabric.

The building was interesting in the fact that it had 4 exterior brick planar wall elements that stopped and started as you moved around the building, leaving openings between for fenestration.  It was perfectly good brick, well maintained and well constructed.  So do we demo the building?  Do we keep the building?  Can the brick walls be removed while salvaging the materials for reuse?

One approach to this project is to demolish the entire building, which typically makes a construction project easier.  The approach we took was to keep the existing building and work around it..  From an architects perspective, I found these brick planar elements fascinating and wanted to find a way to incorporate them into the final building design for this site.  These distinct architectural elements could provide a nice framework and pallette to help guide the design of the new structure around it.

The “before” pictures of the site show the building’s original brick wall elements and how they were used to define the buildings exterior facades and window treatment.  The brick walls on the east side of the building (parking lot side) were removed to make way for the building addition.  All of the removed brick from the east façade was used to extend the brick planar elements on the other 3 facades of the building.  The “after” pictures show how these original brick walls were kept to celebrate a building that used to be.

The original structure on this site could have easily disappeared with time like so many old buldings before it. However, I have now shared a little secret with everyone and hopefully have captured and protected a small moment in the built history of the Midtown District in Houston.

Drew Randall

Principal: Element 5 Architecture, Austin, TX

Dogwood midtown Before & After small.jpg
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